New Analysis: Regulating Flame Retardant Chemicals

Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:34:00 AM

By Ruth Rosen  


For good or ill, California often leads the nation’s social and cultural trends and legal standards. California’s passion for organic, local food, for example, has spread across the nation. When the state demanded lower vehicle emissions, manufacturers rushed to produce vehicles compliant with California’s regulations. With nearly 40 million people buying consumer products in one state, manufacturers across the nation, as well as in China, tailor their specifications to meet California’s regulations. 

Here’s the “ill” part. In 1972, California passed legislation requiring flammability standards for upholstered furniture and baby products like high chairs, strollers and nursing pillows. Manufacturers met these new standards by using inexpensive, toxic and untested flame retardant chemicals. These flame retardants contained hazardous halogenated chemicals similar to PCBs and dioxins, two of the most toxic classes of chemicals. Untested in humans, these brominated and chlorinated flame retardants can cause cancer, birth defects, neurological and reproductive or endo-crine disruption in every animal species studied. As a result, one state’s law has become the de facto standard for the country and poses a serious threat to everyone in the nation. Californians, in fact, have earned the dubious honor of having the highest amount of toxic flame retardant chemicals in their bodies of any people on the planet. 

Environmental health experts speak about “the body burden” of the many dangerous chemicals we ingest that compromise our health. Once you bring these products into your home, the flame retardant chemicals, which are not chemically yoked to the upholstery foam, escape as dust into your living room and bedroom, adding millions of pounds of toxic chemicals to homes across the country. This toxic household dust, according to research studies, not only enters our bodies but also contaminates soil and water, and ends up in our food. 

Most people are blissfully unaware of these flame retardants. Across the country you see people who are worried about dangerous toxins carrying their “BPA-free” water bottles. But they are unaware of the pounds of potential endocrine disrupters and carcinogens floating around their living rooms and bedrooms. 

Just ask Arlene Blum, a 64-year-old Berkeley scientist who became famous as the first woman to climb most of Mount Everest in 1976, who led the first all-women’s ascent of Annapurna in 1978, and is the leading scientific adviser fighting against dangerous flame-retardant chemicals. Blum, who received a doctorate in biophysical chemistry from UC Berkeley in 1971, recently founded a nonprofit organization, the Green Science Policy Institute, that provides unbiased scientific information to government, industry, and nongovernmental organizations about chemicals used in consumer products in order to protect the health of people and the planet. 

Her first major effort to decrease toxics began in 1977. Her research and an article she wrote for the prestigious journal Science helped convince the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban a fire retardant known as Tris that damaged DNA and was absorbed into children’s bodies from their sleepwear. 

She then tried to force chemical companies to prove that their chemicals pose no danger to human health. Most Americans don’t know that companies are not required to prove that their chemicals are safe for human health. Writing in Science in 2007, editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy noted, “In Europe, the chemical industry is required to establish safety before a product can continue to be marketed.” Not so in the United States, where the EPA or consumers must first prove harm.  

Kennedy supported Blum’s effort to “ban the use of the most toxic fire retardants from furniture and bedding unless the manufacturers can show safety. Not surprisingly, (sciencemag.org Vol 318 23 Nov. 2007) chemical manufacturers launched a fear campaign in opposition.” As a result of heavy lobbying, and considerable funding for the opposition, the legislation was defeated in 2008. 

Blum thought she’d start again with products that pose no fire hazard and that are made just for infants. California’s flammability state law requires that baby strollers, infant carriers, bassinets and nursing pillows contain the toxic flame-retardant chemicals in the foam. Working as a scientific adviser, Blum helped launch a campaign to get a law passed that would ban these toxic chemicals from baby products. State Sen. Mark Leno sponsored the bill (SB 772), which successfully passed the state Senate. Supporters included Friends of the Earth, MomsRising, the National Defense Research Council, many other environmental groups, the NAACP, and firefighters, who knew that deaths from fires are rare in baby products and far less dangerous than the chemicals. 

But the chemical industry launched its own campaign to defeat the bill, funding the opposition by creating front groups opposed to the bill. On a previous bill, it spent $7 million in one quarter with one lobbyist. It also got the California Black Chamber of Commerce Foundation, whose motto is “Dedicated to Economic Development,” to oppose the bill and brought a group of African-Americans to the state Legislature, where they testified that banning the chemicals constituted environmental injustice, because most fires occur in poor neighborhoods. 

Fire data isn’t good enough to show whether or not the use of toxic flame retardants is effective at reducing deaths. Fire deaths have declined in California since the introduction of the retardants, but deaths declined even more in other states where toxic fire retardants were not required or used. Firefighters also pointed out that smoke alarms, sprinkler systems and fire-safe cigarettes are far more effective in reducing fire deaths than chemical retardants. Nonetheless, a group of minority legislators, accompanied by a few intimidated white liberals, changed their vote, and the bill failed in August 2009. The exploitation of minorities to kill the bill was a clever tactic. But it is not environmental injustice to improve the health of poor people. 

So why should you care about this? Because it’s part of health care reform. It’s preventive medical practice to keep people and animals from ingesting the chemical dust that accumulates in human bodies, even when the foam is covered with cloth. Three chemical companies — Albermarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemical Limited—make profits from producing these chemicals, and our world has become poisoned. 

Blum is now working with scientists and manufacturers to create more sustainable furnishings, electronics and building materials. In an interview with the Chemical and Engineering News, she said, “I believe that using green chemistry to develop safer material is not only vital for the health of the world but would also be more profitable for industry.”  

At the same time, however, California is considering legislation that would make flammability standards for mattresses even more dangerous. 

Blum is as relentless and persistent in this fight as when she’s slogging up rock- and snow-covered mountains. Her Green Science Policy Institute has already stopped the passage of five different flammability standards that would have required the use of hundreds of millions of pounds of toxic flame retardant chemicals around the world. To give one example, she convinced four states not to replicate California’s flammability standards. 

Those who have watched Blum in action know that the chemical companies have encountered a fiercely determined scientist who possesses endless stamina.  

“It’s hard to turn around an organization and people on a dime,” Sara Schedler, a lead author of a report on flame retardants for Friends of the Earth, told Inside the Bay Area, the web page of the Bay Area News Group, “She did it.” 

Schedler called Blum “one of the most remarkable scientists I’ve ever met. She just lives and breathes her care for the world and she has the background to translate science for policymakers, legislators and the general public.”  

For her part, Blum is cautiously optimistic. Next year, she notes, the same legislation to ban toxic chemicals from baby products will be brought before the California legislature. Meanwhile, she relies on a relentless campaign to educate the public.  

“Parents,” she told me, “should check labels and avoid products that say they meet Technical Bulletin 117, the California furniture flammability standard. We as consumers have to demand to know exactly what are the chemicals in our products and what are the health problems associated with these chemicals. We have to demand that chemicals are proven safe before they are put on the market and in our homes.” 

Yes, the public needs to be educated. But politicians and agencies tasked with protecting our health must also resist the chemical industry’s lobbying. Some good news is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it will undertake a three-year phase-out of DecaBDE, a persistent and toxic chemical that has been used as a flame retardant in consumer products. But Blum is not convinced that the substitute will be any safer.  

The EPA has also just announced actions to address “Chemicals of Concern.” That the EPA is looking seriously at the biological and environmental harm caused by chemicals is a good sign, after decades of neglect. 

None of this news, however, affects the flammability laws in California, which impact much of the nation. The real goal is for chemical companies to bear the burden of proving that their chemicals are safe. We should not have to suffer potentially serious illnesses in order to prove harm. 


Ruth Rosen, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, is a professor emerita of history who teaches at UC Berkeley.